Since the City Council first presented a plan to outsource emergency medical services (EMS) the vast majority of residents of University City who shared their concerns made clear they were not supportive of the idea. The decision, made by a 5-2 vote of the council in 2015, was political, not financial. The council took the action without the support of the people we represent. That move was made worse because it negated our mutual aid agreement with neighboring municipalities. Our constituents tried to prevent this mistake, but their input went unheeded. Now the new council must work to right that wrong.
Our new city manager has been clear about his desire to put in place a transition plan. I hope that means he will first present the council with a “triage plan” of sorts. In the event that the private provider, Gateway Ambulance Service, were to pull out of University City, we would have a plan to take back EMS services within 90-120 days.
I believe returning EMS to a city service is the right decision. The city manager must determine both the cost and how much time the city will need to re-establish both the staff to do the work and the mutual aid arrangement with our neighbors. Our ambulances have not been used in more than two years; that means we will have to make sure we have the appropriate equipment. Because of the outsourcing, we downsized our fire department, so we will need to rehire qualified firefighter paramedics. We must find a way to move forward in a responsible and decisive way.
Redefined Relationship with Washington University
University City is fortunate to have Washington University as a neighbor. Having lived on the edge of the campus for the past 25 years, I believe that having such a stellar institution in our community benefits us tremendously. Washington University has stabilized and improved the surrounding neighborhoods by buying and rehabilitating apartment buildings. However, that good work also has a negative impact: the property that Washington University buys as a non-profit university is removed from the city’s tax rolls. The loss of the city property tax from Washington University’s purchases impacts the city and the University City School District, both of which rely heavily on property taxes to operate. The loss is then shifted to the tax bills of the remaining property owners.
I believe the city must have a more strategic relationship with Washington University. We need to open communication and participate in more conversations regarding broader plans for the community’s future, rather than address each project individually. I also believe that the more properties Washington University takes on as a commercial landlord, the more interaction it needs to have with our city administration. We must become more proactive in expressing our concerns and desires for our community and its future in partnering with the institution.
Metropolitan Sewer District
When MSD started talking about building a sewage overflow facility in University City it talked only with the city administration, the mayor, and a minority of the council. Not all members were privy to the plan and the decisions that were being made. As soon as those of us on the council who were in the dark learned about the facility and the negative impact it would have on our community, we pushed back. My fellow council members and I jumped right on the problem, got ourselves educated, started talking with MSD, and worked relentlessly to engage the public in the discussion. Not everyone has agreed with the revised MSD proposal. However, the conversation is taking place unlike before, and the proposal has since been revised. MSD now understands that the council is firm in our desire to find a solution that benefits both University City residents who will be impacted by the storage facility as well as the broader community.
Proposition P Funds
Proposition P, the half-cent sales tax passed last year in St. Louis County, was designed to address public safety. However, many people have differing definitions of what constitutes public safety. I strongly believe that both the administration and the council must communicate with residents and consider all input from them as we work to prioritize the use of funds that the city receives from the tax. I also believe we must communicate with our Police Department to learn its priorities for the money. In order to make a decision on the use of the tax we must determine, along with other cities in the county, whether these funds can also be used for other public safety services like the Fire Department and EMS.
We are fortunate that our new city manager is focusing on assessing the city’s needs regarding the police headquarters. We need to give him time to research and present potential solutions to the council as to what he understands to be the needs of the department and the community and the costs of the various options: multiple substations, a rehabilitated headquarters, or an entirely new headquarters.
We expect the Loop trolley to open within the next couple of months. It is unfortunate that some of our businesses did not make it through the extensive construction process. We also need to work to find an appropriate solution to the dangers faced by cyclists traveling through the Loop.
While the Loop trolley has generated considerable opposition, the length of time it has taken to get the trolley up and running has caused much of it. The trolley is now part of our community, and we owe it to ourselves to make it a success for the betterment of University City.
Streets & Parks
Although the council has begun to put a greater emphasis on street repair and other capital improvements, the reality is that we are only making up for deferred maintenance. Extensive capital improvements cannot and should not be financed in our annual budget; they may require a bond issue. However, the City Council and administration must make every effort to regain the confidence of our residents. Your city government has an obligation to restore your faith in its day-to-day operations so that you know how your tax dollars are being spent. We have a responsibility to earn your confidence in your local government before coming to you with a request for a long-term bond issue.
We are fortunate to have the Delmar Loop as part of our community. It brings in a great deal of sales tax revenue to University City, and I hope that the recent addition of the Loop trolley will further add to that. The more visitors we can bring into the Loop, the more shoppers and diners we can bring in to our businesses.
In the past several years, a number of apartment complexes have been constructed at Delmar and I-170. This both adds taxpayers to our rolls and enhances property values.
I believe you will soon see further development along I-170 moving north to Olive and I-170, where we hope to have a development to announce in the near term. I have been on council for 10 years and we have worked diligently but have struggled until recently to attract interest at that particular intersection. It is our hope that a significant development at that intersection will spur additional growth along the Olive corridor moving to the east.
Your Confidence in City Hall
For the past several years our community has become fractured politically, but we need to reject any inclination to place blame. We need to focus on reuniting and healing. Over the past year, the council promised you that we would hire a new city manager through a national search as well as a city clerk and city attorney. All of those actions have been taken. And in a very satisfying development, the council was also able to pass the budget unanimously.
The council believes that our new city manager must be a member of the International City/County Management Association. His contract with University City requires that as well as his abiding by the ICMA’s code of ethics. This is a step in the right direction to restore the credibility of our city’s professional leadership.
It is now incumbent upon me and my colleagues to further enhance the public’s confidence in our government by communicating with all residents in an open and transparent manner, rather than marginalize those with whom we disagree. We must give everyone the opportunity to share their opinions and participate in open discussions in order to reach justifiable decisions. Crucial policy decisions must include a comprehensive community engagement process. Our residents seek ways to be involved in the discussion. One of the surest means of achieving a higher level of respect from the community is to give all residents the chance to share their views and be heard.